10 Questions to Ask When Hiring a Defense Attorney

1. How long has the attorney practiced criminal law?

Your future is too important to hand over to a lawyer who has not been practicing criminal law for a significant period of time. Research has shown that it takes approximately 10 years to become an expert in any chosen field.[i] This is commonly referred to as the "10 year rule." When hiring an attorney, you will want to look for an attorney who has spent at least 10 years practicing criminal law.

2. How many jury trials has the attorney been engaged in?

You will want a lawyer who is familiar and confident with the trial process and not afraid to go to trial. Many lawyers aren't comfortable in trials, and even if it isn't best for their client, they find a way to settle cases without going to trial. The prosecution can sense the fear of going to trial, which can have a detrimental effect on plea bargaining. Having an attorney who is ready and willing to go to trial can significantly improve the outcome of your case. You should look for an attorney who has handled at least 40 or 50 jury trials.[ii]

3. Is the attorney a certified criminal law specialist?

While you can ask a lawyer about his or her experience, a better way to determine the lawyer's qualifications is to find out if the attorney has been certified by the State Bar of California as a Criminal Law Specialist. An attorney who is a Certified Criminal Law Specialist has proven his or her proficiency in the area of criminal law.

4. How much of the attorney's practice is devoted to criminal law?

You should look for a lawyer who devotes a majority of their practice to criminal defense. You don't want to hire an attorney who practices criminal defense once in a while or occasionally. A good rule of thumb is to hire an attorney who devotes at least 50% of his/her practice to criminal defense.

5. What kind of experience does the attorney have?

Many attorneys will open a private practice right out of law school without absorbing the invaluable experience that comes from working at either a District Attorney's Office or Public Defender's Office. You will want a lawyer who has cultivated his/her trial skills before opening up a practice. Prosecutors and public defenders spend their time in the courtroom on a daily basis. They are exposed to various types of cases and handle a wide range of criminal matters. A lawyer who has gained such invaluable training and experience before going into private practice is at an advantage.

6. Will the attorney you hire actually be the one handling your case?

Many law firms will have you initially talk to an experienced lawyer and then assign your case to a less experienced lawyer. If you are hiring a lawyer because of his or her experience and reputation you will want to make sure that attorney will be the one actually defending you.

7. Is the attorney local?

Many lawyers advertise in areas where they do not reside or have an office. They rarely go to some of the areas in which they advertise. A local attorney has the advantage of being familiar with local law enforcement, judges, prosecutors and practices of the courts which can significantly improve the outcome of your case. Before you hire a lawyer , it is important to find out how familiar he or she is with the county where your case is pending.

8. What is the attorney's reputation?

The best way to determine if a lawyer is good, is by asking law enforcement officers, other attorneys, former clients of the lawyer, and others who are familiar with the lawyer's reputation. A lawyer who has a good reputation has worked hard to earn it and will work even harder to keep it. As Warren Buffet said, "It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it."

9. Is the attorney making promises about the results of your case?

Although an experienced criminal defense lawyer can often accurately predict what may happen in your case, no attorney can honestly guarantee a particular result. A lawyer who informs you of all possible outcomes, including negative outcomes, has your best interests at heart. A lawyer who makes outrageous promises about what the future holds is more concerned about getting your business than providing you with the best representation possible.

10. How much will the attorney charge?

People often want to pay as little as possible when hiring somebody to perform a service for them. This may make sense when hiring a florist or plumber. But when you are charged with a crime you will want to hire the best lawyer for your case. A low fee can mean the lawyer is not experienced. It may also mean that he or she handles a high volume of cases. Often, "volume" attorneys quote minimal fees because they intend to plead out your case without exploring all possible alternatives such as motions or trial.

On the other hand, you shouldn't necessarily hire the lawyer who charges the highest fee. The fee charged doesn't necessarily correlate with the level of service provided by the lawyer. Many times, "high power, high price" attorneys devote the majority of their attention to only their most prominent clients. A criminal defense attorney should treat all their clients as priorities regardless of the fee received.